Apple Pay Suica Express Transit Card & NFC Readers

Using the Apple Pay Suica Express Transit Card feature of iPhone 7 and Apple Watch Series 2 devices purchased in Japan is slick and convenient. It’s the big killer feature heavily marketed by Apple and JR East in Japan and fun to use for transit and store purchases.

The Apple Pay Suica support page store section states:

If your Suica card is set as your Express Transit card, simply hold the top of your iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus or the display of your Apple Watch Series 2 within a few centimeters of the contactless reader until you see Done and a checkmark on the display. You don’t need to wake or unlock your device or open an app to make the purchase.

In the field however this is not always reliable and depends on the kind of NFC reader and the store POS system.

The Good
Fortunately, most NFC readers are Express Transit card savvy. Tell the clerk you want to pay with Suica, when the reader lights up put your device a few centimeters away, it beeps a completed transaction and you are on your way. No need to wake the device, choose the Apple Pay card or use TouchID. It just works.

The Bad
Unfortunately some  NFC readers are not Express Transit card savvy. Be wary when you encounter the NFC reader pictured below. Seibu Ikebukuro and all the Tokyu Group line store readers force you to wake the device, select the Suica Apple Pay card and perform TouchID confirmation. On top of everything else, they are slow and prone to electromagnetic interference.

One Tokyu shop clerk inside Ikegami station told me to wait for the train to pass before paying with the NFC reader. She said, “This thing never works when the train goes by. You just have to wait.”

The Ugly
I have written about temperamental Transaction Media-Networks UT1-Neo NFC readers before. These readers are Suica Express Transit card savvy but are sensitive about how the device is held. I found they work best holding iPhone 7 a little further away and not too close.


Panasonic NFC Readers
Panasonic makes some of the most reliable NFC readers I have encountered. On February 8 Panasonic took an unusual step of announcing a new NFC reader device, JT-R600CR. The new reader is FeliCa and NFC Type A/B compatible, it accepts any and all NFC and swipe cards if the POS system is plugged into the appropriate credit card networks. It is also the first Panasonic reader that is Apple Pay savvy  and will improve automatic Apple Pay card recognition on the POS side.

Panasonic is aiming this international savvy NFC card reader for the flood of overseas visitors for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Engadget Japan’s Junya Suzuki wrote a good Japanese article covering the Panasonic announcement.

Clearly, Apple Pay is already shaking up the Japanese contactless pay market.